SI Vault
 
The Power Of Pau
LEE JENKINS
March 29, 2010
A philanthropic, opera-loving, multilingual former medical school student, Lakers power forward Pau Gasol has a game that is as refined and varied as his tastes
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 29, 2010

The Power Of Pau

A philanthropic, opera-loving, multilingual former medical school student, Lakers power forward Pau Gasol has a game that is as refined and varied as his tastes

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4

Gasol has been dissecting defenses with a surgeon's touch since he arrived in Memphis in 2001. The Grizzlies did not know what to make of the 21-year-old who lived with his parents in the suburbs, listened to classical music in the car and was "as likely to talk about Pavarotti as basketball," says then Memphis assistant Scott Roth, now with the Warriors. Pau's mother, Marisa, was a doctor in Spain. His father, Agusti, was a nurse administrator. But they bought a house in Germantown and put their younger sons, Marc and Adriá, into Lausanne Collegiate School, whose enrollment includes students from 40 countries speaking 20 languages. Marc played center on the basketball team, but he weighed 330 pounds, earning the nickname Big Burrito. When he played one-on-one with Pau after Grizzlies practices, he was gassed.

While Marc needed to slim down, Pau had to bulk up. Built like a willow tree, he could not always hold his position in the post, but he learned sets and plays so well that he knew where everybody was at all times. "You know who I coached in Milwaukee like that?" says Brown, now an ESPN analyst. "Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar." By Gasol's second season the only power forwards who could guard him straight up were Kevin Garnett and Karl Malone. Gasol took the Grizzlies to the playoffs three times but never won a postseason game, and midway through 2006--07 he asked to be traded. At the end of that season a frustrated star in Los Angeles asked to be traded as well. They were already linked.

On Feb. 1, 2008, the Lakers were 28--16, but they had not won a playoff series in four years, Bynum was out with an injured left knee and, though he had backed off his summer trade demand, Kobe was near his boiling point. "They had to do something," Bryant says. "They couldn't just sit there anymore. I was pushing them because I felt like I was playing with my hands behind my back. I had no guns. I was going to war with nothing." Bryant was ripped for being petulant and spoiled, but he was prodding his bosses the same way he would his teammates, urging them to find a way. General manager Mitch Kupchak packaged Kwame Brown's $9 million expiring contract with two first-round picks, backup point guard Javaris Crittenton and Aaron McKie, who had to be lured out of his job as a 76ers assistant so the salaries would match. Kupchak also shipped to Memphis an overweight center notable only because of his last name: Gasol.

The morning after the deal the Lakers met in the lobby of their Toronto hotel to catch a bus, and trainer Chip Schaefer rubbed his eyes. "I had the strangest dream last night," he said. "I dreamt we traded Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol." As the Lakers came to grips with their good fortune, Gasol flew from Memphis to L.A., where he took an 8 a.m. physical at the team's training facility in El Segundo. There to welcome him was a beaming Magic Johnson. "Now let's go get the championship," Johnson said.

At week's end the Lakers had gone 144--44 (.765) since the trade, winning six playoff series and reaching two Finals. They had the best record in the Western Conference this season (52--18), and Gasol was averaging 17.5 points and 11.1 rebounds while deferring to Bryant in the closing minutes. "This organization has had some pretty significant moves," Kupchak says. "There was Jerry West [acquiring] Shaq and Kobe. There was Bill Sharman drafting Magic and James Worthy. Before that there was the trade to get Wilt Chamberlain. I don't know where this ranks, but when we look back 10 years from now, hopefully it's up there."

The Grizzlies were the marks, the suckers, plundered in the same way the Pirates are when they try to do business with the Red Sox. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich went so far as to suggest that the NBA needed a "trade committee" to keep teams like Memphis from sabotaging themselves and upsetting the balance of power. "We got nailed by a lot of prominent people," Grizzlies G.M. Chris Wallace says. "But the one thing I kept asking my staff the whole time was, 'I wonder how many of them have actually taken the time to watch the tape of Marc Gasol.'"

After Marc graduated from Lausanne in 2003, his parents urged him to attend college in the U.S., and he met with coaches from Ole Miss and Memphis. But he needed to reshape his body, and he could not do that from a classroom. So he turned pro, headed home to Barcelona, and the pounds began to melt away. The Lakers drafted him in the second round in '07, projecting him as a backup.

Memphis needed more. Marc emerged as a starter last season, promising but still pudgy, slogging his way through back-to-backs. When he returned to Barcelona in April, Grizzlies strength and conditioning coach Jason Biles shipped him massive cardboard boxes jammed with weights, exercise balls and weighted vests. Marc wore those vests as he jogged four miles up and down the Collserola Mountains overlooking Barcelona. When Biles crossed the Atlantic in the summer to check on Marc's progress, Marc met him at the airport. "I honestly didn't recognize him," Biles said. "I thought it was Pau."

Besides their length and scruff, they do not have much in common. Pau glides around opponents; Marc charges through them. Pau goes to art house theaters; Marc goes fishing. Pau debates; Marc scraps. "They have totally different mentalities," says Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. Yet Marc talks to Pau at least every other day and lives in Pau's old condo in downtown Memphis. "Little brothers have to go their own way sometimes," Marc says. "But Pau has always been the best example for me to follow."

The Grizzlies have morphed from 60-game losers to playoff contenders, not in spite of the trade—the only time in league history that one brother was traded for another—but because of it. "Pau has been like an NBA organ donor for us," says Wallace, who turned the draft picks and cap space and other spare parts from Los Angeles into nine players on the current roster. Marc is down to 265 pounds and is averaging 14.8 points and 9.5 rebounds while shooting 58.3%, with an undefendable '80s skyhook and a first step that would make Pau proud. In a game against the Knicks this month Marc wheeled around David Lee, raced to the rim and rose for a reverse dunk, a demonstration of quickness and athleticism that was unthinkable more than six months ago.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4